UK-bound migrants risk Channel crossing

2015-05-20 13:45

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London - After braving the leaky boats of the Mediterranean, many migrants to Europe make another dangerous crossing, risking their lives hidden inside or under the wheels of lorries to try to reach Britain.

Meron, an Eritrean refugee, was just 15 when he spent a fortnight last September in the French port of Calais waiting to cross over to Dover.

He and two friends tried up to 10 times a day to get on a lorry. Finally, they found one with just enough space for one person to squeeze inside.

As the youngest, Meron's friends made him go in – they would follow later.

He lay motionless for hours in a gap between the boxes and the lorry roof, holding his breath in the end-of-summer heat when guards checked the vehicle.

"My heart was breaking," he told AFP in a cafe in south London, near where he is now living with a foster family after being granted asylum.

"I was feeling so hot, there wasn't any room to move, I was lying down. I wasn't sure that I would get to UK."

When the lorry stopped and he looked out to find himself in London, he said: "I felt like I was born for a second time."

‘My mother would cry’

There were 30 000 recorded attempts to cross the Channel in the 10 months to January – around 100 a day and almost double the number for the previous year, official data shows.

The Guardian newspaper reported that 15 migrants died attempting to make the journey last year.

Calais Migrant Solidarity, a campaign group, listed 17 deaths including a Sudanese man reportedly crushed under the wheels of a truck he was clinging to on the M25 motorway around London in December.

It is unclear how many migrants do make it across illegally but Britain in 2013 deported 935 migrants to other European Union countries where they first made their asylum requests.

Many of those who attempt the journey are refugees seeking asylum in Britain, which has the fifth largest number of applications in the EU, with a recent surge in new arrivals from Eritrea and Syria.

Lorry drivers have complained about confrontations with would-be stowaways. The Freight Transport Association complains that drivers face regular and sometimes serious confrontations.

"We completely understand the frustration of drivers who feel they are being used as scapegoats in what is a desperate situation," Natalie Chapman from the FTA said of a protest organised on behalf of drivers last year.

The British and French governments have promised to boost security at Calais but the problem is part of a wider issue of how to respond to the surge of migrants coming into the EU across the Mediterranean.

The question is causing political tensions, with Britain resisting proposals for the bloc to take in more refugees.

Meron's Channel crossing was the culmination of a four-month journey which began when he fled Eritrea and the prospect of a lifetime of military service.

He and his friends paid people traffickers to take them across the Sahara to Libya, where they boarded a packed boat to Italy and almost sank, before being rescued.

At each stage, the only objective was to stay alive, and they only decided to try Britain on the advice of some fellow Eritreans in Italy.

"If I knew that the journey was like this, I wouldn't do it," said Meron, indistinguishable from any normal teenager in black jeans, a long-sleeved black t-shirt and trainers.

He has lied to his mother back home about how hard it was, saying simply: "She would cry."

‘The only choice’

Mohammed, a 33-year-old English teacher from northern Syria, knew he wanted to go to Britain when he left last June in fear of his life – but had no idea what awaited him.

He too crossed the Mediterranean on a dangerously overcrowded boat, before taking the train to Calais, where he spent four months sleeping rough and trying every day to get on a lorry.

In the end, he crossed by climbing between the wheels of a truck and clinging on to the axle.

"It was very dangerous. But it's the only choice," he told AFP by telephone from his home in central England, where he is waiting for a decision on his asylum application.

If granted asylum, he will be able to start work as a teacher and send for his wife who remains back in Syria – although he would rather have stayed at home.

"Nobody will be happy to leave his homeland, his country. But sometimes you are forced to leave".

Read more on:    uk  |  eu  |  migrants

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